Friday, June 8, 2018

Movie Review: Ravagers (1979)

I had originally intended for this to be one of my "80's TV Thursday" posts, as I had recalled this being a made-for-TV movie from the early 80's that I saw precisely one time right around the time that I had learned about the Gamma World role-playing game. But, as it turns out, it was actually a theatrical release from 1979, so it qualifies as neither "80's" nor "TV."

Back in the early 1980's, after I learned about Gamma World, I had gotten onto a huge post-apocalyptic kick and this movie was right up my alley. I stumbled across it after seeing a small ad in our TV Guide, and had to watch it by myself because no one else in my family was interested. Thankfully I remember that my parents were out that night (doing, of all things, square-dancing) and my sister was studying so I didn't have to fight anybody over the TV.

"Ravagers" is based on a book from 1965 called Path to Savagery, which sadly hasn't seen a lot of reprints so it's quite expensive on Amazon right now. The novel is, however, highly reviewed, with only 5-star reviews. 

The movie, unfortunately, didn't receive much critical acclaim, being somewhat praised for its sense of aesthetics but receiving less enthusiasm for its acting and story. It has a large cast, including some pretty heavy-hitters from the time, including Richard Harris, Ernest Borgnine, Ann Turkel, and Art Carney; combining the salaries of the cast and the production designs, it couldn't have been an inexpensive movie to make. 

"Ravagers" is a post-nuclear holocaust movie in which the survivors do their best to protect themselves from the dangers of the world, which mainly comes in the form of wild humans called "ravagers." Opposing the ravagers are other groups of survivors, generally divided into a group called "Flockers," who are relatively primitive and not well organized to defend themselves, and another unnamed group that live on an old naval vessel off the coast for protection, are well-armed, organized, and much cleaner than most humans of the era.

The point-of-view character is a loner, living with his wife, trying to find a place they can settle down in peace, and scavenging for small comforts like old cans of food. The film focuses on his journey as he is attacked by Ravagers, makes his escape, kills one in revenge, and then makes his way across the countryside, interacting with other survivors, all while being followed by the Ravagers.

Honestly, the plot of the movie is very thin and extremely slow-paced, and the characters are very one-note with no personality. The main villain of the movie has maybe one or two lines of dialogue at most, and is so unmemorable that I can't recall his name. His fellow Ravagers are even worse. The fight scenes are also poorly choreographed, especially by today's standards.

The main character, Falk, comes across the ruins
of the Alabama Space & Rocket Center. 
I had very vague memories of seeing this on TV as a kid, and had never seen it offered on video or DVD, but discovered that it's available for streaming on Amazon, so I watched it yesterday, and can say that pretty much the only thing this movie has to offer is its landscapes and set designs. There are a variety of different locations, but the one that really sparks the imagination for a post-apocalyptic type game is an old, abandoned space port, which was shot on location at the Alabama Space & Rocket Center Museum. In particular, the back of the museum, which holds a bunch of rockets, was aged for the movie, so you have old, rusted rockets poking up from the landscape and the effect is suitably creepy and nostalgic at the same time. Those scenes, along with the huge matte painting of a destroyed cityscape shown at the beginning of the movie during the credits, definitely fit within the design aesthetics of 1st Edition Gamma World.
The opening credits backdrop. The destroyed city reminds
me of the cover of 1st Edition Gamma World. 

Other than the set designs, there is little to offer from the movie for players of post-apocalyptic role-playing games. The different cultures of the survivors are barely fleshed out; the cryptic alliances as described in the Gamma World rule-book offer much more role-playing opportunities than the Ravagers, Flockers, and Loners as portrayed in the movie. My understanding from reading the reviews of the novel upon which the movie was based is that the book has much more detail, and is more creative, in the description of the different post-apocalyptic cultures.

However, on the note of role-playing games, I did stat up the three main characters from the movie, as well as a band of Ravagers, way back when I was a kid as part of my encounter tables for Gamma World, and a few years ago, I updated them to the Mutant Future rules here on my blog. I changed the names to "Wanderers" and "Pillagers" to avoid copyright infringement.

Does anyone else remember this movie? What were you thoughts? Did you try to incorporate any of the elements into your post-apocalyptic role-playing games?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "You Know - Extended Mix" by Herald, Gee
Drinking: Coffee

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Dreamer Class for B/X - Labyrinth Lord

Image © 2017 Boom! Studios 

I came up with this idea a few weeks ago while reading a comic book called Lucy Dreaming, about a young girl going through puberty who starts to experience some very odd quirks, including her pupils turning gold-colored, and having very vivid dreams in which she is a hero, warrior-princess, leading a revolution in a dream world. In her dreams, she realizes that she’s dreaming and can’t figure out why she can’t simply wake up, but as time goes on, she learns to use her dream powers rather than be afraid of them. Another interesting idea from the series is that every time she visits the dream world, while her overall “role” stays the same, her appearance changes, as does the landscape of the dream world itself. She also begins to be able to recognize other dreamers in the waking world, and beings to realize that what’s happening to her isn’t just the result of changes happening due to puberty (which is a funny thing that happens in the first issue of the comic). As an aside, I highly recommend this comic, especially to younger teenaged girls and their parents.

Right after reading that comic, I was also reading Dark Nights: Metal by DC Comics, and Sandman (aka “Dream”) makes a brief appearance in that story as well. This all got me to thinking about doing something with dreams in an RPG setting.

This class relies a lot upon the DM to create a “dream plane” or equivalent for the campaign setting, to allow the dreamer character to make use of his or her powers. By using the dreamer’s powers in a clever manner, the DM can drop hints about future plot points in the campaign, but of course needs to be careful to balance the rest of the players so that the dreamer character doesn’t completely take over the direction of the game. It's designed for the Labyrinth Lord game but could be used for a variety of old-school games with a few tweaks. 

I'd love comments on the class, as it's mainly just off-the-cuff and I haven't playtested it or anything. It's really more of an idea and creative expression at this point. In particular, many of the abilities the dreamer has while in the dream world scale with level, which I know is not consistent with most B/X or Labyrinth Lord games, but I couldn't figure out how best to show the dreamer getting better over time without scaling them. 

·        Requirements: None
·        Prime Requisite: WIS
·        Hit Dice: 1d6; +1 after 9th level
·        Maximum Level: None

Dreamers are a special class that have the ability to travel to the dream world, or plane, each night while sleeping. While in the dream world, the dreamer has special abilities, and upon awakening, is able to retain some of those abilities in the real world. The nature of the abilities retained depends upon the dreams had while in the dream world, so the abilities will vary from day to day.

Dreamers can use any one-handed weapon, but due to their need for free movement to cast spells, they cannot use any metal armor.  Dreamers are also able to use any magic weapon (as long as that weapon is allowed by the class) and magic armor (non-metal), and any other magic item that has powers related to divination or dreaming (e.g., all crystal balls, etc.). Dreamers save and attack as clerics, and use the illusionist experience and level progression table (from the Labyrinth Lord AEC) as shown below.

Hit Dice (1d6)
+1 hp only*
+2 hp only*
+3 hp only*
+4 hp only*
+5 hp only*
+6 hp only*
+7 hp only*
+8 hp only*
+9 hp only*
+10 hp only*
+11 hp only*

Each night, the dreamer’s consciousness travels to the dream world, and the dreamer is lucid during this time. While in the dream world, the dreamer has control over his or her actions and has a limited ability to direct the narrative that is happening. The dreamer needs eight hours of uninterrupted rest to lucid dream, and this time also counts as normal rest (e.g., for recovery of hit points, etc.). While in the dream world, the dreamer has the following powers:

  • Attacks as a fighter of the same level (as opposed to using the cleric attack matrix while in the waking world)
  • Adds +1 / +5% to all rolls made in the dream world as a result of his or her mastery of the dream realm. This bonus increases to +2 / +10% at 6th level and to +3 / +15% at 12th level
  • Wields a “dream weapon,” the primary weapon used by the dreamer in the dream world counts as magic while in the dream world (e.g., provides light for seeing and can damage foes that can only be damaged by magic weapons, etc.). The dream weapon counts as +1 at first level, and increase to +2 at 5th level, +3 at 10th level, +4 at 15th level, and +5 at 20th level. At 10th, 15th, and 20th levels, the dreamer may also assign other qualities to the weapon (one each per level, such as “flame tongue” or “frost brand”). The magical bonuses and special abilities on the dream weapon do not function in the waking world. Also, the bonuses do not “stack” with any bonuses that the dreamer’s weapon already has (e.g., if a 5th level dreamer wields a +2 sword normally in the waking world, it does not become a +4 dream sword in the dream world).
  • Able to transport companions to the dream world. Beginning at 3rd level, the dreamer may bring up to three companions with him or her to the dream world, and keep them lucid while they are there. The dreamer’s companions retain the benefits of a full night’s rest while with the dreamer in the dream world (e.g., for spell recovery and memorization, hit point recovery, etc.).  
  • Inspires allies, beginning at 5th level. As a natural leader in the dream world, three times a day, the dreamer is able to provide a bonus of +2 / +10% to a roll, to one of his or her allies while they are in the dream world.

Upon returning from the dream world, each morning the dreamer is able to retain a small portion of the powers that he or she has while in the dream world. The dream world is constantly changing and very chaotic, so the actual powers the dreamer gains each morning while shift from day to day. The DM can work with the player to choose which powers best fit based on the adventures had in the dream world the night before, or the player can just roll on the following table.

Percent Roll
Power Name
01 – 25%
Dream Warrior
+1 to attack rolls and damage. Increase by +1 at 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th levels.
26 – 50%
Dream World
Gains spell ability as a magic-user of the same level; dream time from the night before counts as spell preparation/memorization time.
51% - 75%
Dream Infiltrator
Gains thief abilities as a thief of the same level.
76% - 100%
Future Sight
Gains limited ability to see future events based on events that happened in the dream world.

From 1st through 5th level, takes the form of either an automatic hit during combat, or an automatic successful saving throw, once per day.

From 5th through 10th level, this is the equivalent of casting an Augury spell with the dreamer’s level being used as the caster level for the basis of success.

From 11th – 15th, this is the equivalent of a Locate Object spell.

From 16th – 20th level, this is the equivalent of a Commune spell, but the dreamer is not seeking knowledge from divine powers but rather relying on his or her knowledge gained in the dream world.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Drink's On Me" by Jazzinuf
Drinking: coffee

Monday, April 30, 2018

80 Years of Superman

[Note, I started this post last Wednesday 4/25]

Earlier in April saw two major milestones, both of which are firsts within the realm of superhero comics. First, the character of Superman celebrated its 80th anniversary of his creation by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel on Thursday, April 19th. Second, issue #1000 of Action Comics was published a day earlier on Wednesday, April 18th (almost 80 year to the day of the first appearance of Superman).

[To be fair, DC unfortunately decided to re-number all of their comics back in 2011 when they re-booted their line as "The New 52" so the original numbering of the first volume of Action Comics stopped at #904 and the comic started over as Action Comics, Volume 2, #1. After about five years of that, with the debut of DC Rebirth in the summer of 2016, the original numbering resumed with Action Comics #957, and the publication began shipping twice monthly].

These are very significant events, as Superman was the first true comic book "superhero." Without Superman, there arguably would not be a Batman, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America... the list goes on. Sure, there had been pulp heroes and newspaper comic strip characters, but they weren't "superheroes." The creation of Superman also created a genre which has become an integral part of America's pop culture, and created an American mythology that is no less culturally important to Americans today than the myths of ancient Greece or Egypt were to the cultures of their time.

From a publication standpoint, Action Comics is one of the very few superhero comics books still in publication that can trace its on-going publication history all the way back to the creation of the superhero genre. Shortly after World War II, superheroes fell out of favor and most superhero comics, even popular characters thought of as popular such as the Flash and Green Lantern, ceased publication. The only ones from DC Comics that continued publishing were Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. In the mid-1950's, DC revisited a lot of their old heroes like Flash and Green Lantern, revised them for the "modern" age, and created the "Silver Age" of superheroes. But, all along, the "trinity" of Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman had continued as usual. It's fun to celebrate something that's been continuously published month in and month out (or sometimes, weekly, and as noted, twice-monthly currently) for 80 years.

Given all of the hype and excitement about Superman, for my regularly scheduled New Comic Book Wednesday post, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favorite Superman stories over the years, and hear what some of yours are.

Superman is a tricky character to write well, and most people these days seem to prefer darker, grittier, more "realistic" heroes like Batman. I don't always agree with those people. I definitely enjoy Batman stories a lot, but I don't like him because I somehow think he's more realistic than, say, Superman or the Flash. None of the superheroes in comics are realistic. Yes, Batman doesn't have super-powers, but anybody who actually attempted what Bruce Wayne does would be killed in probably less than a week. And that's not even counting the physical toll on his body and the mental and emotional damage he's doing to himself.

Superheroes are not meant to be "realistic." As I mentioned above, I subscribe to the premise that superheroes are a new type of American mythology, something that is unique to our cultural make-up. The heroes of Greek myth were not admired because people thought they were real. They were gods and demi-gods with extraordinary powers, and their exploits provided moral life lessons that we could learn from and try emulate in our daily lives. The 12 Labors of Hercules teach us that, as humans, we need to learn how to control our anger, lest we be consumed by it and do something horrible that we regret while we are in a rage. People didn't hear those stories and think, "I want to be strong enough to kill a lion!" What they got out of that story was that we shouldn't let our emotions control our actions. Superman has the strength to eliminate Lex Luthor and take over the world and run it as a dictatorship (what he would most likely think is a benevolent dictatorship, but that's aside from the point). However, he doesn't do so. Despite his great power, Superman tries to figure out ways to outwit Lex and also to provide proof of Luthor's wrong-doings within the context of the law so that Lex can be punished by a jury of his peers. The lesson we are intended to take from this is that might does not make right.

Unlike the "Man of Steel" movie (which I did originally like, but now with hindsight, I have soured on quite a bit), the best Superman stories should inspire us, and allow us to see a refugee from another planet who came to earth and made it his adopted home, who does good works and always looks for the best in people, and who uses his great gifts to provide hope for those who are less fortunate. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Superman for All Seasons. This is a beautifully illustrated book, originally published as four monthly issues, with each issue representing a different season. It was a follow-up book to the creative team's very popular Batman: The Long Halloween, a limited series based on the months of the year. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderful coming-of-age tale, which also deals with themes such as the end of childhood and finding one's place in the world. The art features many large format double-page spreads to show the grandeur of Superman. 

Superman: Secret Identity. This is such a clever concept by writer Kurt Busiek, of Astro City fame, and artist Stuart Immonen. It is a non-continuity story that tells the tale of a young boy in a world without superheroes or super-powers,but one that does have comic books. The boy's favorite comic book hero is Superman. Then one day, the boy discovers that he has powers like the Superman from the comics, and he sets out on a path to do good deeds, while keeping his identify a secret. It's a masterfully told tale and one that will resonate with younger kids as well.

Superman: Red Son. Another very clever concept, in an "Elseworlds" format (stories that exist outside of main DC continuity). In this story, written by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, the premise is that Superman's escape rocket from Krypton crash-landed in Soviet Russia instead of in Kansas. Rather than fighting for "truth, justice, and the American Way," the Soviet Superman is described as championing the common worker, Stalin, and socialism. The story spans the timeframe from 1953 - 2001, along with a futuristic ending, and also features alternate versions of most of the main DC characters such as Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Lex Luthor, as well as real-world people such as President Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.

Superman origin sequence from the first
page of All-Star Superman, Issue #1
The All-Star Superman. This is by far my favorite Superman story, told by fan favorite writer Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. This is another out-of-continuity story that tells a very moving, emotional story of Superman, who [minor spoiler alert, but this happens within the very first part of the story] realizes that he is dying, but doesn't want the world to know, and goes about spending as much time as he can with Lois (who doesn't know, in this story, that he is Clark Kent), and accomplishes a series of tasks that help humanity and remaining Kryptonians (such as those in the Bottle City of Kandor), and interacts with all of the important characters from Superman's long history, both in his guise as Clark Kent and as Superman. It's a wonderful story that succinctly tells just what it means to be Superman, and also includes perhaps the most elegant, concise, and beautifully illustrated one-page, four-panel re-telling of Superman's origin.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Superman, what you like and don't like about the character, and also what you would list as your favorite Superman stories. Put a comment below or on Google +.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Somethin' Else" by Cannonball Adderly

Friday, April 13, 2018

Old School AD&D Game II - Thoughts on 1st Edition AD&D and an Old Session Recap

Long-time readers of my blog might remember that back in 2011/2012, I started running an old-school AD&D game as part of our "Friday Night" games (which have recently switched to Saturday nights). These games are intended to be a bit less "serious" than my on-going World of Samoth game, and they are also an excuse for me to dig out a lot of old-school B/X and 1st Edition AD&D modules that I've had for 35+ years, but have never had a chance to run.

I first ran S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and then moved on to S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I've had S4 since I was in my early teens. Way back then, shortly after I discovered D&D thanks to some friends at my junior high school, I started trying to acquire and read as much stuff as I could. I really responded to the idea of creating worlds and characters that populate them, and I was a voracious reader back then - in my "downtime" before I started reading comics and game books, if I had finished all of my library books, I would end up reading my parents' World Book Encyclopedia (1964 Edition) just for fun. So, discovering the world of D&D added a ton of new things for me to read and explore. 

Back then, I didn't have a lot of discretionary income (or, technically none, because I didn't have an allowance), so actually acquiring modules and rule books was a lot more difficult than it is today. My mom helped by purchasing the Moldvay Basic Set and the 1st Edition hardback rulebooks for me, but for modules I was kind of out-of-luck until I discovered that I could borrow them from my friends and my dad could photocopy them for me at his work, which he patiently did on several different weekends over the years. Although I have now properly and legally acquired these old treasures, I still get a smile from seeing all of my old photocopied modules (all of which I kept) and remembering all of the work my dad put into copying those, even though he probably didn't really understand what he was copying for me. 

In any event, S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth always held this very special place in my heart, and I dreamed of running it for a group one day. The interesting and complex mix of wilderness adventure and dungeon-crawl, with the competing political groups all racing to discover the lanthorn, and fun touches like referring to a druid as the "medicine man" of a tribe of mountain men, really struck a cord with me. I began envisioning how much fun it would be to run this adventure, which is essentially a mini-campaign. 

Of course, the reality of the situation could never match my expectations, so when I finally had a chance to run this game, which I offered to do while the main DM of our Friday Night group needed to take a break, the actual experience has so far been less than stellar. It's not totally dissimilar from my experiences running S3, but I think a lot of that has to do with my expectations and the kind of game I was envisioning running for these type of one-off module explorations of 1st Edition AD&D, and the players' preferences for more long-term, story-based games where characters grow in importance over time and become powerful and influential leaders in society. Things like "save or die" and "the bats automatically do damage no matter how many of them you kill" do not compute for this group of players, and it's caused a ton of post-game email discussions about what kind of games we'd prefer to play. 

With that out of the way, after the last time I blogged about a game recap from our S4 sessions, back in August 2012, we played one more time and then the game went on hiatus until about a month ago (an almost six year hiatus!). 

Below is a short recap of the last three sessions (including the last one from way back in 2012), along with my commentary on the things that the players didn't like and what kinds of discussions we had.

As I noted in the previous write-ups of our game sessions, the information below does provide spoilers for anyone who hasn't played this adventure. 

3rd Session: Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013
After Estian's botched accent attracted the suspicion on the Kettite Border Patrol Captain, Lord Flemin, Dwarf from the Principality of Ulek, begrudgingly opted to speak with the Captain, all the while muttering under his breath about the incompetence of his adventuring companions. After the situations was rectified, the Border Patrol Captain let the company continue on their way.

After this, they made quick work of figuring out the quickest path to the entrance of the caverns based on the aerial reconnaissance accomplished by Dolok the druid while wild-shaped as an eagle the day before, and entered the caverns.

Descending into the entry of the lesser caverns, the company were confronted with six passageways adjacent to six large bas-relief caverns of different, grotesque faces with strange features such as tusks, doglike ears, drooping wattles, etc. The characters examined the faces from a distance, and after a cursory determination that there were no clues as to which face indicated where the correct path lie, they chose to work with the old adventurer chestnut of "start on the right and work our way around."

Entering the far right tunnel, they marched in a northern direction through a fungi-filled corridor where they encountered a swarm of bats. After failing to move quietly, and with their torches full a-glow, the adventurers awakened the bats, and were mercilessly attacked until they finally moved through the corridor, which then led them into a long galley pock-marked with large holes on either side. As the company advanced through the corridor, they were attacked by "cave morays" that lunged out of the holes in the corridor walls. The characters took considerable damage from the cave morays and bats, but finally maneuvered through the corridor, and entered a large cave.

Inside the cave, the company were attacked by two large formorian giants, who had heard all of the ruckus outside their cave and prepared themselves accordingly. After a fierce battle, the company was victorious against the giants, but then upon investigating the treasure inside, the company cleric, Benedictus, donned a cloak that radiated magic, only to find that it was a "cloak of poisonousness," whereupon he died immediately.

It was at this time, after Benedict died, that the company realized that he was no human cleric after all, but a bizarre, otherworldly humanoid type creature with flat, gray-skin and amorphous features.

[DM Note: After the last old-school game through module S3 ended with all of the character's deaths at the hand of a group of doppelgangers, who killed all of the characters and took over their shapes, I decided that I would run S4 as though it were 100 years after the events of S3, and that the doppelgangers from S3 were actually an alien species living on the crashed ship, and that one of them had been mimicking a human form for so long that he had actually gone partially mad and would occasionally forget who he was. I gave the player notes to indicate that at the start of each day, the character was to make a Wisdom check on a d20 to see if he could recall who he really was; if not, he would act the part of a human cleric perfectly. But, if not, he would remember that he was an alien and that he hated humans and their demi-human allies, and would do his best to try to maneuver into situations where he could kill his comrades. That actually never occurred in the game, but the player really liked the idea of the character. In the write-up I gave the player, I mentioned that he collected and drank only jars of honey - that was his only sustenance, and in the other character write-ups, for a few of them, I mentioned that they had noticed this and thought it was peculiar, but nobody chose to follow-up on it.]


That ended the third session, and after that, it would be over five years before we resumed this campaign.

During this particular session, a lot of things came to light, which are greatly impacting the direction of playing through this module, as well as the overall enjoyment of all parties involved (the players as well as me as a DM):

  • Wilderness Adventure: This part of the module was added much later when TSR published this module in 1982; the original tournament adventure did not include this section. However, it was in reading the wilderness section as a kid that I really fell in love with this module. While I'd seen wilderness adventures before (notably X1: Isle of Dread), the unique encounters in S4's wilderness section really sparked my imagination. However, for many of my players, the wilderness encounters seemed annoying. A few players in particular kept asking, "How long until we actually start playing?" or "why can't we just go directly to the caverns?" The idea of them having to search for the entrance to the caverns was a bit foreign to them, and not something they enjoyed. They were notably frustrated after the first two sessions that they "hadn't made any progress." I'm not sure where this mentality comes from, other than the idea that I set this up improperly. I had also intended that this particular module could take several play sessions, but I think some of the players were anticipating that it was only going last one or two sessions as most. Additionally, while I found that the role-playing opportunities were most notable in the wilderness section, the players really just wanted to explore the caverns and few of them had any interest in interacting with NPCs that were seemingly distracting them from the "main objective."
  • Searching & Problem Solving: This particular topic has come to the forefront lately, but what I've discovered is that while this group of players are all guys in their late 40's or early 50's who started playing RPGs in the early to mid-80's (with one exception), there is definitely a demarcation line between those of us who started playing "pre-Dragonlance" and those who started with Dragonlance.  That really seems to be the difference between "player skill" and "character skill." I've discussed this with my players after the last two sessions in particular, but it had come to the forefront all the way back in 2012/2013 when we first started playing this. I explained to them that they needed to "describe" their search, not "roll" for it. That seems to have thrown a lot of my players for a loop, which explains why, when they entered the cavern with the six faces, they did not perform a detailed search of the area. I didn't offer anything, but the faces actually do communicate, but only if you approach within three feet and interact with them. These players did not do that, and just randomly decided to start out on the right hand tunnel. I do understand the benefits of things like a Search skill, or the idea that a character with an 18 Intelligence might know something that a player might never think of. That's fair - we don't expect a player who has a character with an 18 Strength to perform a physical task in order to succeed in attacking someone, but I do think that the reliance on simple die rolls to accomplish mundane tasks like searching a room have removed a lot of player ingenuity and skill in the game. I'm all for giving characters with higher Intelligence a clue if their description of what they are doing warrants it, but I'm not going to just say "Roll a d20 and if you roll under your Intelligence, you figure it out." To me, that's just lazy. 
  • Pre-Generated Characters: While I created the pre-gens for this game primarily from the desire to help my players out and make it easier for them to not have to learn a new system to create a character, I also really enjoy creating the relationships that exist between characters and giving them little role-playing quirks for my players to work with. The company of the Lucky Fools and Gloaters (the name of the adventurer group for my game in this module) include a cannibalistic druid who eats the bodies of any creatures he kills, lest they be raised as undead; a human cleric who was actually an alien from a crashed spaceship - using the rules of a Doppelganger; and a Martian, disguised as a "red elf" who accidentally got stranded in Greyhawk via a portal malfunction and has been searching for a way home. However, one thing that has come to light is that these players have a hard time getting into character, even though I am providing them plenty of role-playing hooks, when they don't create the characters themselves. A few of them have also mentioned that they don't have a lot of interest in playing a character that they aren't doing to use again (and who therefore can't grow and become more important) and also who might die at any moment due to the savage 1st Edition rules with things like "save or die" or even "put on this cloak and die with no save." Those types of situations have removed a lot of motivations on the part of the players to role-play their characters much. 

I'll post the recap from the previous two sessions later. In the meantime, I'd love to hear peoples' comments and thoughts. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

D20 Era Reviews Tuesday: Nyambe (and a Short History of Fantasy Africa in RPGs)

A couple of years ago, I started a semi-regular feature on the blog wherein I review old D20 products, with an eye toward "What information in this book can be used in different RPGs?" That's a big theme of my blog - that you can find inspiration anywhere, and a lot of D20 material had some really great background and ideas that are usable whether or not you choose to use the mechanics of D20, which I know a lot of old-school gamers don't tend to like much.

Today's book is Nyambe, sub-titled "African Adventures." This hardback book was published in 2002 using the D20 System License Document for the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but I first stumbled across it as part of a website created by the book's author, wherein he freely published a bunch of his ideas that eventually made their way into the Nyambe campaign setting. The ideas on the website were intriguing and showed a creative use of D&D rules, such as allowing Nyambe Paladins to have a lion companion instead of a typical horse mount. (As an aside, that minor tweak never made it into the final published book; paladins as a class are not part of Nyambe).

A Very Brief Background of Non-European Game Resources
The D&D game is very clearly based on standard Medieval European tropes, and the list of sources that inspired the original game creators seldom strays far from that type of fantasy - Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Tolkien, etc. The first campaign settings developed for the game were also very European in flavor, including Greyhawk, the Moldvay Basic/Expert "Known World," and on through the mid-80's with settings like Dragonlance. Aside from a few scant articles in Dragon magazine, and role-playing games by lesser-known publishers such as 1979's Bushido, it wasn't until the publication of 1985's Oriental Adventures rule book for 1st Edition D&D and its inclusion of a fantasy Asian setting called Kara-Tur, that most role-players were exposed to non-European fantasy.

That book opened my eyes up to a wider world of gaming ideas, and I began to design class variants and weapons for other cultures, particularly the ancient world such as Egypt and Greece. However, even at that time, two main sources always struck me as being very under-developed for fantasy role-playing: ancient India, and Africa.

Throughout the years, Dragon magazine published a few articles about adventuring in fantasy Africa, most notably issue #189 from 1993, which included information on how to add fantasy Africa to your campaign setting, with details on the various peoples, animal life, plant life, monsters, warfare, slavery, and character classes; and another article on the arms and armor of various African nations and cultures. However, aside from that, very little other information was available.

TSR, D&D's parent company, published a book called Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures, and also incorporated the setting of Kara-Tur into the Forgotten Realms, which gave it more exposure. They also published campaign settings inspired by the Mongol Hordes and on the Aztec and Incan Empires of the Americas, but Africa continued to be relatively forgotten.

Flash forward to 2001, shortly after 3rd Edition D&D was published, and I'm sitting in my office at work reading a variety of different message boards about 3rd Edition to get new ideas for my homebrew game, the World of Samoth, when I stumble across (long-since shut-down) and a bunch of fantasy Africa ideas which were perfect for my world's continent of Atkira. I began printing out pages during my lunchbreaks and after-hours (I didn't have internet access at home during this time) to read at home, that I eventually had bound into a small book which I actually still have to this day. Shortly after having discovered the site, I read that Atlas Games was going to be publishing Nyambe as a campaign setting in a big hardback book, and I couldn't wait to add it to my collection so I could mine it for ideas for my campaign.

Nyambe: What Do you Get?
Nyambe: African Adventures is a 256 hard-cover book, including 16 pages in color and the rest in black-and-white, that presents a complete fantasy African-themed campaign setting, including details on:

  • Mythology and History
  • Races and Cultures
  • Core Classes
  • Prestige Classes
  • Skills, Feats, and Combat
  • Equipment
  • Spirits of Nyambe
  • Nyamban Magic
  • Lands, Nations and Societies
  • Adventures in Nyambe
  • Magic Items
  • Monsters of Nyambe

There is also a bibliography, a very detailed index, and the obligatory Open Game License.

The book is a true mix of both game mechanics for 3rd Edition along with lots of flavor text that details the world of Nyambe (properly referred to as Nyambe-Tanda, which translates to "Land of the Overpower"). However, as I continue to maintain throughout my game-related reviews, even if you are not playing a 3rd Edition or similar game system, there is still plenty to be mined from that information if you want to include fantasy African elements in a game with whatever system you choose. For example, reading the background for the Prestige Class known as the Magic Eaters and why they exist in these lands, along with descriptions of their class powers, is great information that can be incorporated into a game even if you don't use the mechanics. Similar techniques can be used by reading through the skills and feats; feat names such as "Arboreal," "Create Gris-Gris," "Drum Dancer," "Elephant Warrior," or "Ritual Cannibalism," provide tons of inspiration for the type of world in which the characters live even if you choose not to use the mechanics as presented.

For those who are not very knowledgeable about the history of Africa and its various cultures and nations, the presentation on the various races and cultures, as well as the Lands, Nations and Societies, will be invaluable in portraying a fantasy Africa setting that is more than just "Europe with different clothing and weapons." The standard D&D races are not represented here; instead, there are different societies of humans, each with its own description of personalities, physical descriptions, relations to other races, alignment, lands, religion, arts, food, language, sample names, and examples of adventurers, classes, and feats that are appropriate for that race. There are 12 different human races presented, but the game mechanics are the same for all of them; this is all just "flavor" to identify different types of cultures from an entire continent of inspiration. For example, there are the NaBula, who hail from the northeast and are reminiscent of real world northern Africans close to the Middle East, and the Nghoi, a race of darker-skinned Nyambans, most of whom stand less than 4 feet tall.

In addition to the 12 human cultures, a variety of different non-human races are presented, including Agogwe (small non-humans similar to halflings, but who are fierce warriors who crave hand-to-hand combat), Kitunusi (similar to gnomes with a connection to shadows and darkness), Ngoloko (remnants of the once-mighty orc nation of Kosa), the dragon-blooded Unthlatu, Utuchekulu (dwarf-like creatures forced above ground by powerful volcanic eruption), and the Wakyambi (an elf-like race that dwells in the trees and who were once the favored slaves of the Kosan orcs).

The section on Equipment includes not only new weapons and equipment, but also adventuring gear such as papyrus, ostrich egg and calabash bottles, game boards, natural medicine kits, and details on Nyamban instruments. The section also covers food, drink, and lodging, clothing, mounts, and also specialty items such as sunscreen. There is also a nice 2-page section on poison, the use of which is common in Nyambe-Tanda as it is not seen as evil.

The section on Adventures in Nyambe covers a lot of interesting details for bringing the world to life, including advanced disease rules, various secrets from Nyambe (including details and adventure hooks for each major nation/society), and Nyamban treasure (art, coins, mundane items, etc.).

The Monsters section includes not only new monsters, but also details on using appropriate monsters from the 3rd Edition Monster Manual.

This book is a great addition to the slowly growing category of non-European RPG campaign settings. While it was published using the original 3rd Edition rules, the vast majority of this book can be dropped into a fantasy RPG of any system, easily stripping the flavor text away from the mechanics to create, or supplement, a fantasy African area to your campaign world.

As a fun aside, Atlas Games' Northern Crown setting, which I reviewed here, uses Nyambe as the Africa analogue of that world.


  • Format. Originally published as a 256 hardback book, with 16 color pages (including maps) and the rest in black-and-white. 
  • Price. Originally $37.95
  • Where to Buy. Although long out-of-print, print copies are still available via online shopping sites such as Amazon and Paizo Publishing, for as little as $10.00 for a hardback book. Paizo also sells a PDF version for $19.20. 
  • More Information. The "official" Nyambe site is housed on Atlas Games, where you can read about author Chris Dolunt's inspirations and motivations for creating Nyambe, as well as get links to purchase a PDF of the book or the two companion books, Nyambe: Ancestral Vault (a book of Nyamban magic items) and Nyambe: Dire Spirits (an adventure). 

Hanging: Congregation Ale-House, Pasadena Chapter (on my laptop while my daughter is at her ballet lesson)
Drinking: Stone Inevitable Adventure Double IPA
Listening: The in-house streaming music is playing "Sleepwalk" by Santa & Johnny
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